Where has England gone?
Friends! Mates! Pub-folk of the Westcountry!
I have returned.
It is I, Robin Rendle, first of his name, and this newsletter was sadly abandoned when I zipped over to the UK for a week. It’s been a while since my last e-message because I’ve been furiously walking all over Devon and Cornwall in a total and complete state of jet-lag.
The plan was simple though: head back to my hometown to see my family and my two year old nephew.
He’s a charming lad, bubbling with enthusiasm and curiosity and stories. I feared that he wouldn’t recognise me or that we wouldn’t click but click we did, within a few moments we were crouched in his little tent eating imaginary ice cream and running over to the park to play football whilst he mumbled something incomprehensible about Paw Patrol.
But each time I travel back to Plymouth now there’s this other, secret plan, too. It’s pretty bleak but I can’t stop thinking about this question whenever I head over there to see my family.
Do I still loathe the UK?
That’s the question that haunts me every time I touch down on British soil. Wherever we go, whatever we do, it’s always in the background. Nagging at me.
I’m the opposite of Kevin Costner in many ways but no more so in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where Kevin returns to England for the first time in five years and rolls about on the beach screaming “I’m home!” with the least believable Nottinghamshire accent I have ever heard. The great cliffs of Dover, miles of endless warm chalk, welcome him back regardless.
Kevin is happy. Kevin is home.
When I touch down in England I inspect it too, but certainly not lovingly. I watch the clouds in the sky and the grass in the ground, I inspect every leaf and tree and person for failures, inconsistencies, and trouble. My eye is not a loving-Kevin-Costner-home-sick look, but a judgmental one; I am always looking for a mean blog post to write.
So do I still feel the same way about England? Is all that teenage angst still there? Does the isolation of this place make me wish to leave it as soon as physically possible? Do I still want to run away?
Hence the plan: figure out how I feel about the UK all these years later and walk all around Devon with my family. No pressure.
But oh boy did we walk.
We walked through dense, sticky jungles and Mediterranean orchards with an ice cream. We walked all over the Eden Project—a preposterous and magic place that simply shouldn’t exist. If you’ve never heard of it then it’s sort of hard to describe. Imagine a series of enormous alien pods filled to the brim with flowers and pollen and bark. You can walk around inside and look at all these alien plants, climb up into the forest canopy, and learn how rubber is made.
It’s a breathtaking place that looks as if it tumbled out of a twentieth century sketch for an International Exhibition on how we’ll all live on the moon some day.
I tried to muster up all that teenage snark whilst walking around; one eye inspecting every flower for defaults, the other watching people walking around and taking pictures of little birds that scurried all over the place.
“Well,” I thought against my will. “This is rather lovely.”
A few days later we headed over to a National Trust property called Saltram House on the outskirts of Plymouth. But The National Trust! What a completely glorious thing it is! I loathed these places as a teenager since they were just stinky old manor houses converted into somewhat-public grounds, full of boring people walking around mumbling about crumpets.
But all that anger in me had gone. In its place was just a quiet hike around the grounds with polite British birds and quiet buildings that were once the manor’s orangery. We walk into the stables and it’s been converted into a second hand bookshop which is perhaps the most Devonshire place in the known world.
We were all teleported back three hundred years to when some baron or other owned all this land around us and had all these disgustingly lavish parties whilst my ancestors across the river were likely working in the mines or in the fields for scraps.
As we take pictures and run around with my nephew I wonder where my righteous indignation has run off to. Where was the England that I remember? The one full of sadness and despair? The country that felt unbearably hopeless in my teen years and made me run away in my early 20s?
This isn’t what I remember at all. In this new, alien place there are lovely little chapels and bright green fields and clean meadows. There’s museums where grimy old pubs used to sit and a beautiful city perched on a bay that looks as glorious as San Francisco does at its peak when it’s showing off.
There’s a whole country full of things to see and do and places to be quiet in.
What have they done to my England?
It’s like a magician flipped a card, pulled a lever, revealed this whole new place. All of it has been transformed in my thirties; the country, the county, the city. It’s now a beautiful landscape, full of pasties and crumpets and free healthcare.
So now I see England for what it is and, I fear, probably always was: a shockingly beautiful and quiet place that will always be home to me no matter how hard I try to fight it or hide my accent or rewrite my bio to exclude it.
I have become Kevin; for now I am happy, for now I am home.